An Interview with Martin Carver, editor of Antiquity

9 mins read
One of Britain’s most prolific and colourful archaeologists dishes the dirt with CA Editor Lisa Westcott.

Why did you become an archaeologist?

My first great loves were literature and poetry. I had no interest in archaeology until I was about 26 years old, on a military posting in Arabia, and came across a site called Naqab al Haja. I was in the army for 15 years, during which time I read voraciously and eventually worked my way back through time to the epics of the Dark Ages. I finally discovered Antiquity, a journal that changed my life irrevocably — I would read it cover to cover the minute it arrived. My real fascination with archaeology started there and I decided to quit the army and try my hand at it. Now that I am the editor of Antiquity, I always keep my former self in mind as a target reader.

Who are your archaeological heroes?

V Gordon Childe and Stuart Piggott are the two that come immediately to mind, because they wrote well. It matters much more to me that people make sense and inspire, than that they just do things. Both Piggott and Childe race along, feeding you their narrative, making you feel part of the adventure.

But heroes do not have to be well known figures. I do many public lectures every year, including Workers Educational Association (WEA) groups and local archaeological societies, presenting new ideas, models and results. I like these groups because everyone comes from different professions and they approach the past from their own perspective. Often, during the discussion, someone with specialist training of some kind will pick apart my observations or theories, or help with pertinent information. Really, these groups are doing professional archaeologists a favour and I find it very inspiring. They educate you in a nice way. So, they are heroes to me as well.

What would be your dream site to dig, and why?

My dream site is Squillace, in southern Italy. Cassiodorus built a monastery there which he called the Vivarium, developed at the site of his wealthy 5th century villa. Many of the great Roman works of scholarship and literature were preserved there, but all we have is basic documentary descriptions of it.   I am especially intrigued by the rock-cut fish traps that Cassiodorus constructed, where ‘happy fish’ would be washed in from the Mediterranean.

More generally, I would love to dig a Pictish settlement or cemetery, on a grand scale. We have much still to learn about the Picts. Though they didn’t leave a history of themselves, they were arguably the greatest artists of their day and are now one of Europe’s most intriguing lost nations. I also believe that the Picts give us our best chance at capturing the elusive Britons.

What is your greatest-ever archaeology moment?

Well, it has to be the very first time one finds something, which for me was a small Roman coin at Sparsholt Roman villa in Hampshire, on my first day as a digger. My most important ‘eureka’ moment was finding preserved wattle fences embedded in sand under an old theatre basement at Durham — 10th century, as it happens; something historically precious in an unlikely spot.

Most recently it is Portmahomack, of course. When the Vikings raided the monastery, they broke up the stone cross-slabs and scattered them around the site. We dug up fist-sized lumps of sculpture, most of them with carvings as fresh and clear as the day they were made. It was a magical fortnight — a new piece coming up every day. Nothing beats a work of art emerging as the soil is brushed away.

If you could travel back in time, what date would you go to?

I would go to the early 7th century when the largest Sutton Hoo ship was buried: I would like to have been there to see how they did it. But more than that — for me this was a time for free-thinkers; there were Romans, Britons, Picts, Scots, Angles, Franks, Danes all arguing about the best way to live and experimenting politically — led by poets. Far to the south and east, Islam was joining the debate. Not only the most exciting intellectual century Europe has lived through, but the one that set the agenda right up to our own time.

What’s next for archaeology?

I believe that archaeology will survive the recession quite well. We’ve become part of the national fabric — who can imagine a Britain without the archaeological profession? Of course, now in the middle of the slump is not really the time for big statements about the future; but I believe the bad times should bring us together.

Commercial archaeology should be equal in status to academia. I may be shot for saying this, but a lot of the reports coming out of commercial units are already more scholarly than the academic output, which sometimes gets lost in theory and esoterics. The current mood is at last allowing a convergence of the two sectors, and a new blossoming for archaeology.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Flight, because it would make commuting so much easier. And I could take my own aerial photographs without having to pay anybody else for them. The past is famously more vivid, viewed from above.

In your opinion, what does the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard mean for the study of Anglo-Saxon Britain?

It’s stupendous. Extremely exciting and marvellous to have something 7th century from Mercia. I expect that this find will redefine the 7th century not only in terms of art, but also in our understanding of the way people thought and the way their ideas are expressed by these remarkable objects. We expect that a diversity of knowledge will be revealed, drawn from Christianity and from the traditional religions of northwest Europe. It is most important to realise that these objects are the products of original thought and were created by people combining ideas. The study of Anglo-Saxon Britain will be enhanced greatly by this and I am excited to present this find to the international community in Antiquity.

Martin Carver – Biography

  • Professor Martin Carver’s 36-year career in archaeology has spanned research, excavation and evaluation of everything from early Medieval towns (1975-1985) to Sutton Hoo (1983-2005) and the first monastery of the Picts at Portmahomack (1996-2007).
  • He was the first secretary of the newly formed Institute of Field Archaeologists in 1982 and Vice President of the Society of Antiquaries in 2002-2007.
  • In 1986 Martin was appointed professor of archaeology at York and was Head of Department for the next ten years.
  • He is the author of numerous books including: Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings?; and Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts; his latest book, Archaeological Investigation, is available in December.
  • Martin is currently the Editor of Antiquity, and has recently started a new career writing up other people’s unpublished excavations.